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Bob Hayes, from the book The Spectacle of Tokyo Olympics

It’s the Olympics. You’re a football player with blazing speed, and you’re prepping to win gold, to be crowned the fastest man in the world.

But on October 15, 1964, in the midst of the Tokyo Olympics, Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev was removed from power by Soviet leadership. American journalists, hoping to get a great quote from the biggest name in Tokyo, ask Bob Hayes, “What do you think?”

As he wrote in his autobiography, Run, Bullet, Run, “What did a twenty-one-year-old kid who was trying to win a gold medal at the Olympics know about what was happening in the Soviet Union? I mean, if the experts in the CIA couldn’t see Khrushchev’s downfall coming, what was I supposed to know about it?”

Hayes hit the nail on the head with his response to the press: “I’m just going to answer your question once. I’m here to win a gold medal and not to talk about politics.”

Hayes, like the best high performance athletes, was focused on his mission.  Gold in the 100-meter finals. Gold in the 4×100-meter relays.

And yet….there’s always something.

It is hours before the finals of the 100-meter dash on October 15. Hayes is sitting in his room in the Olympic Village with the hopes of keeping himself calm. His roommate, long jumper Ralph Boston, is lying on his bed, keeping to himself.

Then walks in Joe Frazier, boxing heavyweight contender, who bounced into Hayes’ room a “bundle of nerves, but especially that day because he had an important boxing match coming up. He started throwing punches at my head. I asked him to leave me alone, so he went over to Ralph’s bed and threw jabs up to within an inch or two of Ralph’s head.”

Needless, to say, the eventual gold medal and heavyweight champion of the world was a distraction. Not getting the reaction he wanted, Frazier began rummaging Hayes’ bag for gum, stuck it in his mouth, and left.

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Receiving his gold medal for the 100 -meters finals, from the book, The Spectacle of Tokyo Olympics

Flash forward to the National Stadium and the fastest runners in the world are prepping for the 100-meter finals. Hayes gets to the track and opens his bag to pull out his shoes. To his surprise, he finds only his right shoe. He dumps the contents of his bag and can’t find the left shoe. “The biggest race of my life, and I was missing a shoe.”

But who walks by but middle distance runner and teammate, Tom Farrell. Hayes has relatively small feet and is hoping against hope that Farrell happens to have the same size shoes – size eight. So when Farrell replied to Hayes’ sudden and unusual question, he said “Well, I wear size eight.”

Not only did Farrell wear the same size shoe, he also wore the Adidas 100 shoe that Hayes’ did. Now, properly attired for battle, Hayes lined up.

And then he learned that Hayes was placed in lane 1. Lane 1 is the innermost lane on the track, and the cinder track had been chopped up by some three dozen race walkers for three circles before heading out on the rest of their 20K journey. Don’t the fastest runners in the semis get the choice middle lanes? Not at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, where sprinters were assigned lanes randomly.

So Hayes set up his blocks. His biggest rivals, Cuban Enrique Figuerola and Canadian Harry Jerome were in the less chewed up lanes 3 and 5. As he got set at his mark, the muscular Hayes was a tightly wound coil ready to spring, ticked off about his lane placement. “I was totally intense, the more so because iw as angry about having to run in the inside lane. Finally, I picked out a spot straight ahead of me down the track and vowed that I was going to get there before anyone else did.”

He did. Convincingly. Watch the video from the 3’ 55” mark to watch the black and white footage of the race. The angle is long enough to show the entire field. And you can see Hayes dominating the field from start to finish. Fastest Man in the World. By far.

 

Gold medal in hand, Hayes returned to his room. Hidden under his bedspread was the missing shoe. The next time he saw Joe Frazier, he shouted “’Don’t you ever go in my bag again!’ That was about the only time I ever saw Joe Frazier apologetic.”

Bob Hayes – fastest man in the world – bringing new meaning to the phrase “if the shoe fits, wear it.”

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The 1964 Tokyo Olympics were not the only news on October 13 and 14. The Soviet Union’s rocket, The Voskhod, orbited the earth 15 times from October 12-13 – the first spaceship to send more than one person into space. In a recorded conversation between Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev and mission commander, Valdimir Komarov, Khrushchev swelled with pride, while Komarov spoke with modest confidence of the need to complete the mission.

What is fascinating to me was the constant reference to the sound quality. In the 14 exchanges, 10 had references to the sound. Here are the last three exchanges of this very long-distance conversation, as published in this October 13 New York Times article:

KHRUSHCHEV: I could hear you wonderfully, absolutely wonderfully. Well, I wish you, dear comrades and friends, good luck in the cosmos. The most important wish is for a happy landing on earth.

COLONEL KOMAROV: Thank you very much, Nikita Sergeievich, we could hear you excellently as if we are talking in Moscow on a normal telephone. We understood you. Everything is in order here.

KHRUSHCHEV: I could hear you quite well. Just as everything is in order at this very minute I hope everything is in order at this very last minute of your flight. The people here are triumphantly excited and are proud of you. We are waiting here for you on earth. Good-by.

Competition between the Soviet Union and the United States was so intense in the early 1960s that the quality of the video and audio transmissions from space were scrutinized closely, a mini-technology Olympics of sorts. According to Kyodo-Reuters, they noted that “Western observers” were impressed with the video transmission, remarking that “the quality of the space TV relay was higher than when pictures were relayed to earth from American spaceman Leroy Gordon Cooper’s ship Faith 7 in May 1963.” However, “the quality of the recording was poor and individual speakers could not be distinguished….”

Voskhod Konstantin Feoktistov, Boris Yegorov, Vladimir Komarov
Voskhod Konstantin Feoktistov, Boris Yegorov, Vladimir Komarov

Were the Soviet leaders and cosmonauts lying about how clearly they heard each other? Were the reports by “Western observers” an exaggeration? Who knows. Cold War trash talking was de rigeur in the sixties.

At any rate, the achievements of the Voskhod appeared to be advantage Russia. After all, NASA did not send a two-man crew into space until five months later. This AP report on October 13 quoted a British newspaper, The Guardian, as stating:

It now seems certain the Russians will get to the moon before the Americans….the (Soviet) crew….will probably knew enough about the behavior of the human body in a weightless condition (and perhaps also in an artificial atmosphere containing helium instead of nitrogen) to predict something approaching certainty a date when prolonged space travel will be feasible. All men in all countries will accept the Russian’s achievements for what they are – a triumph not just for Communists but for questing mankind.

Another third party agreed that the Soviets may have taken the lead in the space race, but they added concern with the competition. The only nation to be devastated by the most technologically advanced weaponry of its time, the atomic bomb, the editors of The Japan Times explained in an October 14 opinion piece that continued technological one-upmanship between the two superpowers could eventually lead to wars among the stars.

Among the objectives of the Voskhod’s flight mentioned by Tass is the carrying out of an extended medico-biological research in the conditions of a long flight. We may perhaps take it for granted that Soviet Russia has by no means given up the idea of placing a man on the moon. Recently, this has been regarded as an American ambition rather than a Soviet one, and it may be that the Russians are more eager to place in orbit around the earth a space laboratory or even an orbital military station. We must wait the denouement – which may not be long in coming.

It is a sad reflection that in an age in which mankind has achieved the capacity to investigate outer space that we should have to think of the possible military use of the capabilities which are now being constantly added to, but we must accept the grim facts of our situation. There are still serious tensions on earth, and if these should ever burst into conflict we may be sure an effort would be made to use outer space for military purposes. While this possibility exits, the two great nations – the United States and Soviet Russia – feel the need to watch closely each other’s progress in space, if for no other reason.

The Americans and Soviets did not need added incentive to beat each other at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. And yet, the achievements of the Voskhod probably put a little spring into the steps of the Russians. At least for a few days. Only three days after the Voskhod successfully landed, leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev, the man who famously said to the United States “We will bury you,” was unexpectedly removed from power.

A clip from the film, The Right Stuff: a glimpse of the American sense of urgency in the space race of the 1960s.